Cory Collins

The Journey South County

Yes, I’m a white man, who grew up in a middle class family in South County. I was fortunate to have parents who did not express any prejudices, nor taught my sister and I any prejudices.  Despite this start, I was one of those kids who was picked on for being “smarter” or getting better grades than my peers. The bullying had gotten so bad that during my 5th and 6th grade years, I was actively looking for a different school to attend.

My investigation led me to the Magnet program in St. Louis. Public schools with emphasis on various subjects – mine being math, science, and technology. I was able to convince my parents to allow me to apply for the program, and to my joy, I was accepted. This meant many things were going to change for me. The first and obvious was that I was officially part of a desegregation program and rather than being bussed into the county, I was bussed into the city.  I had to get up earlier, and got home later than my sister. However, beyond the logistical changes, this decision would dramatically influence my development into adulthood.

Upon attending my new middle school in 7th grade, I was immediately in the racial minority. I do not know if it was ignorance, innocence, or something else, but I never felt like my black classmates excluded me. Rather the opposite, I made friends and my black classmates challenged me, in a positive way, for top grades in class. For the first time in my young life, I felt accepted for who I was and embraced for being smart, not shunned. Most of my teachers were black and I felt proud to be a part of the school and this environment. I do clearly recall that every year during Black History Month, it seemed like all of the classes focused on black history.  As a kid in the moment, I did not think too much of it, just as another bit of the curriculum. Yet, in retrospect, it seeded and cultivated an awareness in what my black classmates carry, for both good and ill, as their history. I grew to change my view from it being just “black history” to adopting this history, as my own, particularly since the pivotal events influenced not just the black communities, but American history as a whole. I have never been able to truly experience what my black brothers and sisters have; I still took to heart and made it personal to me the struggles that they go through, both historically and to this day.

During my high school years, I was still in the racial minority at my school. I was looking to get involved in sports and ended up signing up for the cross country team. When I showed up for the first practice, it took me until the end of practice to realize that I was the only white kid on the team. As the season continued, I acquired various nicknames – all of which I loved. Names, like Forrest (Forrest Gump) and MacGyver (I had a mullet-like hair style). However, one that I didn’t think anything negative of at all was “white dude.” My teammates frequently called out “hey, white dude,” if I was not paying attention or straying off the running course. One day I clearly remember my black coach tearing into some of my teammates when he heard them call me that. I turned to him and was laughing a bit, and said that I don’t mind, especially since I was the only white dude on the team.

Throughout high school my peer mentors, inspirational teachers, and mentoring coaches were all black. On the cross country team, a black senior took me under his wing and we became fast friends, and I have many fond memories of our practices and races together. It was during both my junior and senior year that I was made captain of the cross country and co-captain of the track teams. Learning from our coach and the captains before me, I was very protective of my teammates, regardless of skin color. There were even times when I had to stand up and protect some of my teammates from bullies. I believe that my time in high school, and specifically the cross country team really helped develop and solidify my affection and appreciation for my black friends. One unique thing with cross country revolves around how the races are executed. Unlike in track, or other sports where activity is often more specialized, everyone knows that we all have a 5k to run, and we all know the challenges before us. During the race, whenever someone had to slow down, or walk, due to some kind of fatigue or pain, the other runners passing, would pat them on the back and actually encourage them on, not tear them down. This trend, I noticed, carried over to the distance events of the track events. The races were not of the mindset of “I’m going to beat you,” rather it was I hope everyone makes it through safely and everyone does their best.

There is one memory that I look back on at the profound symbolism of it, but at the time thought nothing of it beyond simply doing the right thing. Our track team was competing at the Coca-Cola Invitational at the Jackie Joyner Kersee Center in East St. Louis. My event was the open 2 mile run, which was one of the later events to run. The starting and finish lines of the race were on the complete opposite side of the stadium from where all the teams were seated.  Near the end of the race, I clearly remember a runner from Roosevelt High School, one that I had run against many times during cross country and over the years, twisted his ankle with 1 or 2 laps left. He pulled himself out near the finish line and crumpled into the infield grass. After the race, I noticed that he was struggling with his other teammate to get up and get moving to their team. Without thinking, I walked over, took some of his gear in a free hand, slung his left arm over my shoulder and my right arm around his back. Together with his teammate, we walked him across the large grassy infield to their team. At the time, I thought nothing of it beyond helping a fellow athlete whom I had competed against many times. In retrospect, I see the sight as something bigger and defining as a considerable piece of who I am. Here we have a (very) white kid from a competing school beside two quite dark skinned athletes from another school as the only three people crossing the large grassy field, arm in arm to make sure that the injured athlete gets safely to his team so he can be taken care of.

All of the male role models and mentors I had growing up, outside of my family, were men of color. In fact, a black teacher was the inspiration for me to enter the IT field. I was also fortunate to be able to express that deep gratitude to him at a chance encounter many years later. More black men have shaped and molded me than, I believe, white men have. I do not believe I would be the man I am today without God placing those people of color in my life. I’m very thankful for the experiences I had during those crucial and formative years in middle and high school. I did have a few moments I can clearly remember being in all-white company and getting disgusted hearing others disparage people just because they were black. Some of the speakers were teachers at schools I would have attended, had I not transferred to the magnet program. I clearly remember my stomach tying itself in knots and feeling sick hearing that language. I even recall when it came time for my high school 10-year reunion, the ease that I felt being in the company of my peers again. Some I recognized, some I did not, but regardless, we had a great time laughing and talking about anything and everything. However, there was one thing that reminded me of the cultural divide. The woman I was dating at the time accompanied me to the formal dinner of the reunion. It was not until later in the dinner that I realized that she was terrified, being one of the few white women. This was not simply the awkwardness of not knowing anyone at the party, but she was genuinely terrified. It was a stark reminder for me that I was fortunate to have the exposure, experiences, and background that I did with comparison to many other white kids growing up in St. Louis.

As a white man, with this kind of experience, I feel extremely fortunate. I am consciously aware of the struggles of my black brothers and sisters and my heart breaks at the injustices. Sharing my story has always been something that I have done carefully, as I don’t want to come across as bragging, or in some way saying that I’m better than someone else. I think the greater fear is being perceived as a white man trying to “prove” that he is not racist by pointing out that “I have a black friend.” It is this fear of harming the advancement of justice and equality for minorities by coming across as pandering and shallow, that often grips me with uncertainty and leaves me at a loss for words.

I’m also now blessed with a wonderful wife who feels deeply for everything, particularly racial issues. She has been able to be a rock and anchor for me, as well as a connection to things going on lately. By nature, I’m an introvert and a computer geek. I’m not on social media and often didn’t listen to news or other similar media, so I had become a bit disconnected with world events – just had been wrapped up in my little bubble away from news. She has helped me to emerge from my introvert isolation and reminded me of my background experiences.

I fully admit that I am not perfect, and am sure that I have done, or said, some things that I was not aware were racist or prejudiced. I humbly ask for forgiveness for those actions, and regularly pray that I can be called out if someone catches me doing or saying something inappropriate or out of line.

In summary… it had not occurred to me that the stories of white people were important for bringing reconciliation and healing. My biggest fear was that my story would be a detriment to the causes. I’m a white man with what I realize is a unique life experience. I actively sought to leave my white bubble of a community and entered a community where I was the minority. The majority of role models and mentors I have had, have been men of color. I should not be silent on this, from a fear of appearing disingenuous, or worried that it could hurt the cause of justice.  I am thankful to God for the experiences and for using them to mold me into the man I am today.